Manufacturing blueprint: MAGNET champions plan for a high-tech, talent-rich manufacturing future

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Most manufacturers are nose-to-the-grindstone types more concerned about day-to-day operations than broadcasting the importance of their industry, says Ethan Karp, president and CEO of the Manufacturing Advocacy and Growth Network (MAGNET).

If manufacturing executives are not so interested in championing themselves, then it's up to MAGNET and its regional partners to cheerlead for the industry.

The advocacy group is collaborating with Northeast Ohio corporations, universities, and economic development groups on “Make It Better: A Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio,” an effort that trumpets an industry responsible for almost 50% of the local economy.

The blueprint, backed by Team NEO, Greater Cleveland Partnership and Case Western Reserve University, among others, recognizes a changing marketplace where innovation is vital to growth.

Ethan Karp, president and CEO of MAGNETEthan Karp, president and CEO of MAGNET“We can’t say that manufacturing is a dying or hurting industry when the opposite is true,” says Karp. “We also know that manufacturers can’t be doing the same things they have been doing.”

“Make It Better” forecasts a high-tech vision of the future—where talent, technology, and leadership are the benchmarks of success. The report, unveiled in 2021, imagines Northeast Ohio as a creative hub producing the next generation of cutting-edge talent.

Advanced manufacturing must be part of the economic landscape if Northeast Ohio wants to remain competitive, the report says. This burgeoning sector includes robotics, artificial intelligence, and the blockchain.

Dozens of high-powered regional entities back MAGNET’s plan—including companies where advanced manufacturing jobs are available—which visualizes transforming local shop floors into the factories of the future.

“We said let’s do more than create a position paper,” Karp says. “Let’s make this a coalition so everyone’s work aligns with a common vision and encourage people to work together to make this vision come true.”

Building for the future

Should the blueprint’s lofty ambitions become reality, Northeast Ohio will build on existing assets while creating profitable new avenues for manufacturing, says Karp.

For instance, the area boasts a $3.2 billion aerospace and aviation cluster, with biohealth, food processing, and metal fabrication representing additional tech-focused strong suits.

Still missing in Northeast Ohio is an environment of risk-taking that embraces new technology and attracts skilled workers, notes Leah Epstein, MAGNET’s vice president of engagement, who says firms reluctant to invest in the latest innovations may be anxious about change, or a family company might be unsure if the next generation is willing to take on ownership responsibility.

“A simple reason people don’t think about technology is because they’re focused on the work in front of them,” says Epstein. “They want to provide a good livelihood for their workers and they’re not looking at the big picture.”

Yet, putting off tech-based investment has its own risks, says MAGNET president Karp.

“You don’t need collaborative robots to be profitable,” he says. “But if you’re not planning today to integrate this technology, then when it does become a thing that others have as a competitive advantage, you won’t be able to compete.”

Drawing on diversity can also close the talent gap and provide a living wage to women, people of color, and other populations unschooled in the industryDrawing on diversity can also close the talent gap and provide a living wage to women, people of color, and other populations unschooled in the industryAn environment of diversity

Technology adoption has a direct link to drawing fresh talent, as younger generations are inherently connected to the digital world, explains Karp. Additionally, the factories using the newest in automation, computation, and networking should be as diverse as Cleveland itself, he says.

Per figures compiled by MAGNET, Northeast Ohio’s manufacturing workforce is 74% male and 83% white. Changing these dynamics means connecting with new pools of talent—which was a major factor in MAGNET relocating its headquarters to the renovated Margaret Ireland Elementary School in Cleveland’s Hough neighborhood.

The 53,000-square-foot facility, purchased in 2020 from the Cleveland Metropolitan School District (CMSD), is connecting people to training and jobs while increasing manufacturing innovation and providing area factories with advanced technologies.

Just as crucially, officials hoped MAGNET’s new digs will dispel inaccurate beliefs that manufacturing is a dark, dirty, and dangerous industry. A partnership with CMSD, for example, will demonstrate innovation and smart manufacturing to 3,000 K-12 students annually, ideally becoming a beacon for small-to-medium-sized producers throughout the area.

Drawing on diversity can also close the talent gap and provide a living wage to women, people of color, and other populations unschooled in the industry, says Karp.

Although the “Make It Better” blueprint is only two years old, MAGNET is seeing the report’s foundational pillars take hold.

Twinsburg-based Innovation Food Services, a former catering business that now provides meals to schools and senior centers, has enjoyed improved output after incorporating computer-controlled robotic devices into their daily processes. Then there’s GOJO, the Akron maker of Purell hand sanitizer, which added 500 jobs during the pandemic.

Companies following the blueprint are taking a step-by-step approach to achieve not only sustainability, but the dream of eventual exponential growth, Karp says.

“The lesson for manufacturers is you don’t have to do this all at once,” says Karp. “You can make changes incrementally and lean into them, and then learn what’s needed next. So, the hope and enthusiasm there is that change is coming, and that we will embrace it.”

This an introduction to a five-part series on MAGNET’s “Make It Better: A Blueprint for Manufacturing in Northeast Ohio—a vision for the future of manufacturing in Northeast Ohio as a leader in high-tech smart manufacturing—and the four pillars to the blueprint: Innovation, Transformation, Talent, and Leadership. 

Douglas J. Guth
Douglas J. Guth

About the Author: Douglas J. Guth

Douglas J. Guth is a Cleveland Heights-based freelance writer and journalist. In addition to being senior contributing editor at FreshWater, his work has been published by Crain’s Cleveland Business, Ideastream, and Middle Market Growth. At FreshWater, he contributes regularly to the news and features departments, as well as works on regular sponsored series features.